BY THOMAS DUNNE
Of all the things we experience in firefighting, nothing is probably more exciting or immediately rewarding than advancing a hoseline and extinguishing fire inside a burning building. Not many jobs can provide this combination of adrenaline rush and immediate tangible feedback.
The firefighter operating the nozzle has a choice assignment, but he must bear in mind the basic responsibilities of the first hoseline. Recently, I operated at a three-alarm apartment house fire that reinforced the vital importance of first-line engine tactics.
1. Photo by Matt Daly; all others by author.
THE FIRE SCENARIO
When Fire Department of New York (FDNY) units first arrived at the scene of this apartment fire at 0921 hours, we were faced with heavy fire venting out of two windows on the third floor of a four-story, 50-foot by 60-foot building of brick/wood joist construction.
By the time I arrived as the on-duty deputy chief, the fire had autoexposed to two windows on the top floor, directly above the original fire apartment. Fire was now showing out of two windows on each of the top two floors of an occupied apartment building (photo 1). I transmitted a request for a second-alarm assignment at 0929 hours, knowing that we had some difficult work ahead of us.
Every fire presents at least one critical challenge to the incident commander. The first challenge in this situation was to get a hoseline in operation in the original fire apartment on the third floor. This had to be accomplished before personnel could proceed to the top floor to attack fire extension at that location.
It is vital to quickly extinguish a top-floor fire in this kind of building to keep it from extending into the cockloft. Fire in this large, undivided air space between the roof and top-floor ceiling will very quickly extend in a horizontal direction. This will lead to extensive overhaul and the need for several hoselines on the top floor, both of which will call for a lot more personnel.
The size of the building and the configuration of the fire escapes indicated that several apartments were on each floor. Gaining control of the fire on the third floor would allow an aggressive search for victims to start at that location. It would also make it possible for personnel to safely use the interior stairway to go above the initial fire for rescue activity on the top floor.
Again, the critical key to the entire operation was getting water on the freely burning fire on the third floor as quickly as possible.
A chief supervising from the street cannot personally put out the fire, but he bears the responsibility for the overall success of the operation. He is understandably anxious to have the fire he observes rapidly extinguished by an aggressive hose attack.
There are, of course, inherent delays in accomplishing this. Obtaining a water source, stretching the hoseline, and forcible entry all will take some time. However, based on previous experiences, a chief can develop a sense of whether an operation is proceeding in a timely manner or a fire seems to have been burning for too long.
As I watched heavy fire to continue to vent out of four windows, I started to sense that something was not going right in the operation.
Although the first hoseline was in position and supplied with water, there was no sign of the fire’s being extinguished in the third-floor apartment. In addition, as I monitored the radio, I heard the officer in charge of the second hoseline call for water to be supplied to his line. There was a clear sense of urgency in his voice.
I transmitted a request for a third-alarm assignment at 0933 hours, just four minutes after the second alarm was struck. There was now a potential for two serious problems: a delay in getting water on two floors of heavy fire and the prospect of fighting a cockloft fire. To stay a step ahead of both possibilities, I wanted additional personnel responding to the scene as soon as possible.
In the original fire apartment on the third floor, the first engine had in fact run into a serious problem. When firefighters entered the apartment door from the public hallway, they immediately faced two alternate doorways inside the apartment (photo 2). The doorway to the right gave access to a small bedroom, which at the time was not burning. The left doorway opened to a hallway within the apartment, which led toward the front of the building.
Since they had observed heavy fire venting from two windows on the front of the building, the engine advanced the hose through the left doorway and down the hall. Based on the exterior size-up and knowledge of other apartment layouts, this seemed a logical tactic. The fire was in the front of the building, and the interior apartment hallway seemed to give the most direct access to it.
Unfortunately, the layout of this apartment was different in that the interior hallway led only to a small front bedroom, which was not on fire. The hallway gave no access to the room that was burning and venting fire through the windows (see Figure 1).
The firefighters of the first engine had inadvertently placed themselves in a very precarious position. With their charged hoseline now committed at the end of the apartment hallway, fire from the room that was burning had a means of lapping behind them. As seen in Figure 1, this is exactly what occurred as fire was drawn toward the open apartment doorway and out into the public hallway. The backup hoseline was just getting into position as this occurred. The urgent call for water I had heard on the radio was in response to the situation that was now unfolding.
Fortunately, the first engine quickly assessed the predicament and managed to reposition its hoseline down the hallway and back near the entranceway to the apartment. This enabled members to confine and extinguish the fire. Their ability to recover was the key element for the entire operation. With the public hallway and stairway now secured, the second hose was free to proceed to the floor above and attack fire extension at that location.
Photo 3 gives evidence of the heat that had vented out of the third-floor apartment doorway. Had this gone on unchecked, the stairs to the floor above would have been untenable, and it is likely that much of the top floor would have been lost.
Note also the wire showing at the top of photo 3. This is a cable TV wire; it is not uncommon to find such wires in the public hallway of an apartment building. They are mounted near the ceiling and covered by a plastic conduit, which melts rapidly in a fire. When this occurs, the wire can drop down and possibly entangle firefighters working below.
As the engines were pressing their attacks on the top two floors, firefighters were heavily involved in roof operations. The stairway bulkhead was opened, and the roof was cut directly above the location of the top-floor fire.
The roof cut (photo 4) is an important tactic for a top-floor fire. If the roof is cut quickly and at the right location, the cockloft will be protected because of the venting of heat and fire. It is essential that the top-floor ceiling be pushed down with a hook after the cut is made for this to work correctly.
Photo 5 shows the underside of the roof cut. It is obvious from the charring that fire had just begun to extend to the cockloft. Opening the roof above kept the fire from extending horizontally through the rest of the cockloft area. It is likely that these char marks were directly above the light fixtures in the apartment ceiling. In this type of construction, these fixtures provide a ready means of fire extension, and the areas around them should be opened up rapidly when overhauling.
The combination of aggressive engine work and excellent venting by the ladder units allowed us to confine the fire and complete a thorough search for victims. Fortunately, no serious injuries were incurred and the fire was placed “under control” at 1004 hours.
A fire operation seldom teaches a new concept in firefighting. More often, the fires we respond to highlight over and over again some basic firefighting principles. This was true of this fire, which reinforced the following lessons:
- Importance of the backup hoseline. With the exception of a fire that has severe exposure problems, the second line must be stretched initially as a backup to the first hoseline. This ensures an alternative if the first line loses water or encounters other problems. It will also protect the stairway and personnel who are proceeding above the fire and preserve a means of egress for building occupants.
It is vital to ensure that the second hoseline is not needed on the initial fire floor before moving to the floor above. Communication and coordination between units are always major factors in firefighting.
- Multiple alarms/mutual aid. Addi-tional assistance should ideally be requested in anticipation of possible fireground problems, not exclusively in reaction to problems already encountered. Have the necessary personnel responding early so you are not forced to play catch-up with the fire. In this incident, the volume and location of the fire dictated quick transmissions of multiple alarms, which provided ample personnel to overcome the problems encountered.
- Incident command system. Having additional personnel assigned to this fire made it possible to place an officer in charge of the fire floor, the floor above, and the roof. Numerous units were operating in each of these areas. Assigning a commander to each sector greatly simplified the organization and communication at this fire.
A safety chief responded to provide the perspective needed to minimize the danger on the fireground. This officer is best used if safety is his exclusive function and he does not get involved in specific fire tactics.
- A logistics chief supervised a staging area, which was set up a half block away from the building. This gave multiple alarm units an exact area and a specific person to report to. It also allowed for precise information concerning the resources available at the scene and better control of the units.
- Fire spread. Fire can spread in a variety of ways in a nonfire-resistant building and did so at this incident. Fire autoexposed from the third-floor windows to the top-floor windows. It also extended to the floor above through structural components inside the building. If left un-checked, the fire would have spread to the cockloft. The initial engine had a first-hand experience with rapid horizontal fire movement in the third-floor apartment.
Always consider all the possible ave-nues of fire travel (including fire dropping below).
- Rear lookouts. When advancing a hoseline into a structure, it is a good practice to post someone as a lookout in proximity to the entranceway. This firefighter should be near (but not in) the doorway. He can help feed hose as the line is advanced, provide an exit beacon to personnel, and watch for any hazardous conditions that develop behind the nozzle team as it advances. A closed door will act as a fire barrier; once opened, however, it may create a path that draws fire and endangers personnel.
BUILDING ON EXPERIENCE
The incident commander’s perspective from the street is very different from that of the firefighters inside a burning building. The chief in charge is not subjected to the smoke, heat, or danger his units are dealing with in a fire. He has the luxury of drawing up a floor diagram and critiquing an operation after the smoke has lifted and when the building layout, as well as the problems encountered, become obvious. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on the incident commander to note and correct any operational problems his post-fire analysis uncovers. Difficulties encountered and mistakes made can be used as positive learning devices. They should be discussed at the scene or as soon as possible after the fire.
Misjudgments are sometimes made un-der the stress of battling a fire. The ability to recognize and recover from them is the mark of an aggressive and efficient firefighting unit. The first engine in this operation did an excellent job of repositioning its hoseline once the crew became aware of the problem. This ability to recover made it possible for the operation to succeed.
Not every fire provides a clearly defined direction for the hoseline to take. You may have to make an early decision to maintain the initial charged line in a position to protect the means of egress until the best path to the fire is established.
As shown in our incident, this route is not always obvious, even with a lot of fire showing from outside the building. Take the time needed to choose the correct path before advancing the hoseline on the fire. This choice is as vital as selecting the nozzle, hose size, or method of hose stretch.
Firefighting is not just a series of individual events but rather a carefully orchestrated se-quence of actions. The positioning and advancement of the initial hoseline probably have a greater effect than any other action taken at most structural fires. An engine officer must know he has established the best path to take before he gives the “go” to his crew, and the first firefighter in that crew must realize he is carrying a lot more than just a nozzle. The lives and safety of many people lie squarely in his hands.
THOMAS DUNNE is a deputy chief and 22-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, with experience in mid-Manhattan and the Bronx. He is a graduate of Fordham University and an instructor at the Westchester County (NY) Fire Academy.